28.09.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Modern physics tools uncover prehistoric dental treatment

Results of an international research effort using a new portfolio of instruments and methodologies developed specifically to study objects from the past suggests that therapeutic dentistry may have been around much longer than we thought.

The research, led by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP*) and Sincrotrone Trieste ELETTRA, focused on a 6,500-year-old cracked tooth from Slovenia. Using a combination of modern physics tools--including three-dimensional, high-resolution X-ray, radiocarbon dating with accelerator mass spectrometry, and infrared spectroscopy--the researchers analysed the tooth to determine the age and composition of a resinous filling detected inside.

The analysis showed that the tooth was filled with beeswax, likely to alleviate the pain of chewing on a cracked tooth, providing what could be the earliest known direct evidence of a therapeutic dental filling. The interpretation of the evidence obtained in this study, based on the use of advanced analytical methods, supports the hypothesis of an intentional therapeutic treatment, but alternative post-mortem practices are not ruled out.

The tooth is from a jawbone that was found in a cave near the village of Lonche, Slovenia and is considered one of the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far. The researchers determined that the jawbone came from a man aged between 24 and 30 years who lived some 6,500 years ago.

'Bee products were used by prehistoric communities for technological, artistic and medical purposes, but it is thanks to the Lonche finding that we can now imagine men doing dentistry in Neolithic Europe,' said the study's lead author, Federico Bernardini, a postdoctoral fellow at ICTP's Multidisciplinary Laboratory.

'Evidence of the earliest known practice of dentistry was discovered some years ago in a 9000-year-old graveyard in Pakistan, but until now there was no evidence of tooth filling,' added Claudio Tuniz, co-author of the study and a coordinator of the ICTP/ELETTRA X-ray imaging laboratory.

ICTP and Sincrotrone Trieste used funding provided by the local government of Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia to develop a new portfolio of instruments and methodologies to study objects from the past. The two institutes have developed compact and portable x-ray devices capable of analysing the structure and chemical composition of ancient bones, buildings, and art objects in a non-destructive fashion. The devices are the first instruments of their type in Italy devoted to anthropological research.

The research on the beeswax filling was carried out in collaboration with the University La Sapienza, Italy; the Museum of Natural History, Trieste; INNOVA and the 2nd University of Naples; the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation; and the University of Trieste.

Details of the research have been published in the online, open science journal PloS One.

* About the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP): ICTP is a UNESCO Category 1 Centre. For more than 45 years, ICTP has been a driving force behind global efforts to advance scientific expertise in the developing world. Founded in 1964 by the late Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, ICTP seeks to accomplish its mandate by providing scientists from developing countries with the continuing education and skills that they need to enjoy long and productive careers. The Centre operates under a tripartite agreement with the Government of Italy, UNESCO and the IAEA.

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